Monday, August 25, 2014

On The Road in Patagonia - 125 Years Later


Approach to Torres del Paine


In 1879, Lady Florence Dixie chose to travel by boat from England to explore Patagonia,  land of the Giants.  In responding to those who thought her crazy to journey to such an outlandish place so far away, she wrote that was precisely why she chose it.  Writing in her memoir, “Across Patagonia” Lady Dixie explained, “Palled for the moment with civilization and its surroundings, I wanted to escape somewhere, where I might be as far removed from them as possible.”  She recognized other countries may be “more favoured by Nature but nowhere else are you so completely alone.”

Upon arrival in the outpost of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the South American Continent, Lady Dixie, her brothers, husband and friend bought horses, food and guides as they set out for their six month journey.  Her first impression of the Pampas was disappointing – desolate, successions of bare plateaus, not a tree or shrub visible anywhere – like a landscape of some other planet.  And, the wind, oh, the “boisterous wind – the standing drawback to the otherwise agreeable climate of Patagonia.”
Two Guanacos in Patagonia

But Nature had much to offer Lady Dixie - herds of 5,000 guanacos (small members of the llama family), groups of 100 rheas or small ostriches, wild foxes, and pumas.  And, as they approached the majestic Cordilleros mountain range, geese, duck, swans, and flamingos appeared near the lakes. Wildlife was not just for viewing as they were all hunted for food with help from the dogs.   Califate berry bushes and wild cranberries provided some variety in the diet.   And the ibis made a great broth. 

They passed an Argentine gaucho, native tribes traveling and traders with their wares.  Never sure whether those approaching were friend or foe, Lady Dixie’s entourage kept guns handy.  Finally, they entered the mountains from the barren plains.  Despite the “almost painful silence”, Lady Florence knew her view of Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine) with the snow covered mountains and glaciers was not yet shared by any other woman of her world.  Penciled sketches brought back her majestic views to England to prove her discovery and to entice others to visit. 

One hundred and twenty-five years later, I followed much of Lady Dixie’s path but in significantly more comfort.   Also starting in Punta Arenas, we traveled north by bus the first day, crossing the same Pampas, enduring equally strong wind, and awaiting the same snow covered mountains to gradually appear out of the haze.  

While the numbers of wild life were greatly reduced, we easily found guanacos and rheas as well as geese and ducks.  Sheep and cows were now numerous mixed with wild horses.  The modern world shone bright with an oil refinery and wind turbines. Plastic bags were caught in the brush like modern day tumbleweeds.   We stopped three times to pick up passengers waiting on the side of the road and at a bus station on an air force base.  And as we neared the mountains, beautiful estancias, tucked in ravines, provided green relief.      

Rheas in Patagonia
In a van on the second day of traveling, even fewer cars were on the road.  A sign warned “Watch for Flying Sand”, a rather obvious danger, I thought.  While stopped to observe our first eagle, we heard nearby Cara Cara birds squawking loudly and for good reason.  Three grey foxes were stealing their babies.  More guanacos passed by, easily jumping the fences.   And rheas seemed more numerous, possibly thanks to their being protected by law. 

In a mere 1 ½ days, we arrived at the foot of the mountain leading to the three towers of Torres del Paine, Lady Dixie’s ultimate site and one she described as “Cleopatra’s Needles”.   Our trails were more worn, filled now with visitors from around the world and we slept in beds rather than tents.  But we did share the building or contribution to rock cairns found along the trails while Lady Dixie alone carved her name in a yet unfound tree. 


Modern Day Gauchos in Patagonia
Lady Dixie is well known in the Patagonia area today.  A hotel in Puerta Natales is named in her honor and guides nod in recognition when you mention her name.  It was a relief to find the landscape intact and the wildlife visible – just as she wrote.  What hadn’t changed in those years was the vastness of the mountains, abundance of glaciers and waterfalls, stratified soil colors, scattered rain clouds, streams of clear water, and blue glacier lakes – all a geologist’s dream and a traveler’s thrill.  

Lady Dixie dedicated her amazing journal to His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, the  Prince of Wales.  I think I’ll dedicate this column to Lady Florence herself  – another adventuresome spirit of a different era.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Denison, Texas – From a President’s Home to a Pirate Ship With Art In Between






Dwight D. Eisenhower's Birthplace
Room where Eisenhower was born
Denison, Texas began as a company town built by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (called the KATY), the first railroad into Texas.  At its height, half of Denison worked for the KATY, including David Eisenhower from 1889-1892.  In a small white clapboard house across the road from a railroad tract, the family’s third son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born in 1890.  President Eisenhower’s birth details may have been lost since all births were at home and Denison had no hospital.  As late as his application to West Point, Dwight thought he was born in Tyler.  However, Principal Jennie Jackson remembered the Eisenhower family and contacted him when he became famous.  

Statue of Eisenhower by Robert Dean
Then General Eisenhower visited his birthplace in 1948, just after the home was purchased by Denison to be preserved.  It is now a State Historic Site that offers a short tour of the house (he only lived there 18 months). A bronze life size statue of General Eisenhower stands on the grounds with him dressed in his personally designed short Eisenhower jacket.  Oklahoma artist Robert Dean created five statues of the president and Denison was lucky to get one of them. The statue was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Eisenhower Birthplace

Denison’s downtown is surprisingly long and large with the train station anchoring the east side.  This is the third station on the site and includes a wedding venue in the former waiting room and a railroad museum.  There we learned Union Pacific bought the KATY railroad and still runs freight trains through the town.  However, the railroad yard now lies west of town and is a busy place. 


Kaboodles Store in Denison
A surprising number of art galleries and antique stores line Main Street with a proposed Studebaker Museum in the works.  My favorite store was Kaboodles, opened two years ago by Cindy Dickson.  The store includes creative and unique repurposed items by local artists and even carries leather purses made by Brad Berrentine, a resident of Pattonville.  Kaboodles Facebook Page


After lunch at CafĂ© Java’s (also known as CJ’s), we walked past the old Rialto theatre.  As we peered through the glass doors, new owner Rich Vann waved us in. He has replaced the sound system, brought in a large screen, and is ready for nightly live shows, movies, or even football games.  His opening event on August 23rd is a Stevie Wonder impersonator.  “We aren’t promising anything.  We’re just going to do it,” he tells us.  All those living in the downtown lofts are going to appreciate this venue. Rialto Facebook Page

Swimming Beach at Eisenhower State Park
Continuing to capitalize on the brief Eisenhower connection, the city boasts of nearby Eisenhower State Park on Lake Texoma.  This is a large park with many camping spots, screened in cabins and some serious marinas, including the Eisenhower Yacht Club.  An employee acknowledged there is no club nor club house and the name is just a fancy way to describe the marina.  Pontoon boats are available for hire and we particularly liked the small swimming beach.  We were sorry not to have brought swim suits to enjoy the clear, cool waters. 
Eisenhower State Park

Compass Rose
Further around the lake we found the Compass Rose – an exact replica of a wooden, tall sailing, brigantine privateer boat from the 1860s.   It was undergoing repairs as we approached.  A young man introduced himself as Mark Nagel.  “I’m the quartermaster,” he said.  Captain Ron Odom soon approached and shared the history of his boat.  She was built in 1968, has traveled around the world twice and is one of only 145 remaining privateers in the world, few of which are still sailing.  Since their purchase, Captain Ron and his wife, Tamie, have refigured the sails into a square rig which allows the boat to turn in any direction, picking up the wind on the lake.  They’ve replaced just about everything, furnished it with period pieces and covered the hull with fiber glass to protect it from growth in the lake.   

This nautical life is especially surprising for Ron who lived 52 years on a cattle ranch in West Texas.  After spending summers sailing in the Caribbean and owning a series of Hunter boats, Ron and Tamie are finally living their dream.   The Odoms have made the ship available for tours (1st and 3rd Saturdays) and sails.  All of the crew work as volunteers except a required 100 ton captain.  Passengers are treated to pirates in authentic costumes, complete with an ex-marine who climbs the mast and rigging.    Check their website for sailing times, including their full moon events.  
Compass Rose Website


Denison has an eclectic assortment of history, art, recreation, and entertainment for visitors – certainly enough to fill a day or weekend.  Since it’s just an hour down the road, more in Paris should take advantage – unless pirates make you nervous.

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